Missile Defense Agency (MDA) General Counsel Jill O’Connor, left, poses for a photo with her sons Liam and Luke and husband Chris, July 2023, at the Fort Belvoir MDA lobby.

Missile Defense Agency General Counsel: ‘Things just fell into place’

When she was in elementary school, Missile Defense Agency (MDA) General Counsel Jill O’Connor thought she’d be a doctor.

Obviously, that didn’t stick.

Realizing she couldn’t stand the sight of blood was only one of the reasons she didn’t go down that road.

Civics, history, and government courses piqued her interest while she was in middle and high school. It still hadn’t solidified as a goal yet, but law was in the back of her mind as a potential profession.

“Before I went off to college, my dad said, ‘You need to get a Bachelor of Science,’” said O’Connor, who ultimately graduated with a dual major: geology and government.

She chose geology as the science course required for graduation, but it was the geology lab instructor who drew her in.

“He looked like Santa Claus,” she said. “He was just exuberant, full of life, full of energy, and you couldn't not love geology when you were in his class. Funny enough, though, my dad was a geology major, and I come back from having taken Geology 101 and I said, ‘Dad, I'm going to get a Bachelor of Science in geology!’ and he said, ‘Not that science!’”

O’Connor said jobs in geology are hard to come by – her father didn’t have a long career in the field either. So her affinity for the writing aspect of government led her to the double major and a thought that maybe she’d become an environmental lawyer.

While it was two men who largely influenced her initial trajectory into studying geology, a historical female figure sowed the seed that ultimately grew into the legal career and evolved into what O’Connor is today.

The appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor – no relation – to the highest court in the land more than 10 years earlier was that inspiration.

“I was seven when that happened and I remember it being a monumental occasion,” O’Connor said. “I honestly think it was her appointment that triggered being a lawyer as an option for me.”

After graduation, O’Connor worked as a defense contractor for more than seven years – which she said is common for people who live near Washington, D.C.

“I had taken the LSAT [Law School Admission Test] but, having double-majored, I was pretty burnt out on school and thought, ‘I’m going to work for a couple of years, see where I land and what I end up doing and if law school is the right thing for me,’” she said.

When her LSAT scores were about to expire, she applied to law school.

“I decided that it was something that I wanted to pursue because, where I was as a defense contractor, there wasn't really a path for continuing education,” she said. “I truly believe in learning something new every day, so education and continuous learning is really important to me.”

It's unlikely anyone who’s attended law school would categorize it as easy. But O’Connor went to law school part-time at night while still working 32 hours a week.

“I would never recommend that path to anyone doing it that way,” she said. “Never.”

But O’Connor made the sacrifices and came out better for them on the other side. And along the way, the influence of Justice O’Connor, who served as a Supreme Court associate justice for more than 20 years and died in 2023, has not lessened.

“I would say she’s still a role model,” said O’Connor, who is at the helm of the office that exercises functional responsibilities and authorities on all legal matters and activities related to MDA programs. “She was amazing, she was an incredible justice, and she worked really hard to have a good balance between work and home life.”

MDA’s O’Connor said the former justice was not just a role model for those in legal circles, but for working mothers in general.

“It’s not so much doing it all – no man, no woman can do it ‘all,’” O’Connor said. “It’s knowing that there has to be that balance and figuring out what works for you and what you can live with. For some people, it’s more work; for some people, it’s more life and no one should be ashamed of that choice.”

Before coming to MDA, O’Connor spent more than 18 years at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. NGA delivers world-class geospatial intelligence, which is the exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information to describe, assess, and visually depict physical features and geographically referenced activities on earth. 

During those years, she had young children and ultimately rose through the ranks to becoming a member of the Senior Executive Service (SES).

O’Connor’s father was in federal service for more than three decades; her mother was a federal employee until she became a stay-at-home mom. 

“I would not say that I was one of those folks who entered the federal workforce and said, “My goal is to be an SES one day,” she said. “My thought process walking in the door was about service and I think, along the way, things just sort of fell into place.”

Perhaps there was a little more to it than that.

She recounted a point in her career when both her sons were sick – the youngest was a year old – and she went to work.

“I remember sitting at my desk thinking, ‘I am so glad that I’ve done this job so long that I can do this in my half-asleep state that I’m in today, and know that I'm still going to do a fairly good job,” O’Connor said. “At that that point in time, if someone had said, ‘You're going to be an SES in seven years,’ I would have laughed because I could just barely get through my day.”

But she made it that day and many more after. And then, on one of those days, O’Connor was presented an opportunity. She took it.

“I had some incredible mentors – two women, in particular – at my prior agency who really encouraged me to think about the SES path because I was the staff-level attorney and I had gotten to the top of the GS scale,” she recounted. “I loved what I did – and I was good at it.”

While O’Connor has seen some of her peers take paths that are only related to law, she said she’s not ready to leave the legal profession.

She has been at MDA for a little over a year, but said it’s a privilege to work at a place that values its people like MDA does.

“The team here is so fabulous that I just can’t even contemplate leaving my GC team or the clients I serve,” O’Connor said. “So I envision it for as long as they will let me stay.”

Kerensa Houston, Missile Defense Agency